What can South Africa Learn from UK Developments?

The workplace is a complex environment in more ways than most people might think. Various factors operate synergistically or in isolation to produce undesirable outcomes. Consequently, occupational health and safety risks are invariably dynamic and evolving

It is against this background that the May 2019 Health & Safety Newsletter by CMS McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP, a United Kingdom (UK) limited liability partnership, on occupational health and safety (OHS) issues in the UK provides some useful insights for South African employers. The newsletter covers a wide range of occupational health and safety issues; here we comment on two of them that may be of interest to local employers.

First, the Health and Safety Environment (HSE) statistics for 2017/2018 have been released, showing that more people in the UK are succumbing to work-related stress, depression or anxiety compared with previous years. So serious is the problem that it is the largest contributor to the total annual number of work-related illnesses and working days lost. Of even greater significance are the results of a global survey that show that incidents of work-related stress are more prevalent among female workers than males. From a sample of 1 000 UK employees, the survey found 79 percent of women confirmed that they were suffering from stress, compared with 66 percent of male employees.

Furthermore, the survey found that the factors most commonly contributing to stress were workloads, financial concerns and anxiety over personal health. Yet another key contributor to the increasing incidence of stress highlighted in the survey is the “always on” phenomenon – a situation where, through technology such as smartphones, employees can access emails about work at home or during non-working times like weekends and public holidays. Consequently, it is becoming harder to get one’s mind off work.

Many employers in South Africa invest significantly in employee-wellness programmes. It is unclear whether there is sufficient understanding of what these programmes should achieve. In addition, there appears to be no framework in place to assess or monitor whether they are achieving their intended objectives. The UK component of the global survey addressed this issue and found that 48 percent of female employees were of the view that the structure of wellness programmes needed to change. The women felt that these programmes needed further customisation, in order to offer tailor-made benefits for men and women. In the same survey, 48 percent of UK respondents expressed the view that their employers did not take wellness programmes seriously.

A second issue highlighted in the newsletter is the number of injuries experienced by employees across the UK from falls from height. According to the report, the number of companies facing prosecution for falling from height injuries continues to rise. The prosecution of offending companies falls under the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASAWA) of 1974. In one case, a food manufacturing company was fined £1 866 000 (more than R41 580 000) plus costs after two of its employees fell more than four metres to the ground. In yet another case, a roofing company was fined £20 000 (more than R445 000) plus costs after an employee fell from height, fracturing their pelvis and suffering spinal injuries. It is worth pointing out that penalties levied on companies in terms of HASAWA depend on, among other factors, the size of the offending company’s turnover.

The two developments highlighted above are important for South Africa and therefore warrant further comment. Stress continues to be a major OHS concern for employers worldwide. This has been the case since the early 1990s. The problem is compounded by the fact that both work and non-work factors contribute to stress. This presents a complication for employers, since, even where non-work factors do exist, employees are more likely to downplay those and highlight work-related ones instead as being the source of their stress. Nevertheless, this does not mean employers should stop investing in measures to mitigate the problem – employers stand to lose more if more members of the workforce succumb to stress.

The finding that stress is more prevalent among female workers than their male counterparts is of particular interest from a corporate policy standpoint. While technology (especially smartphones) has numerous benefits, it also comes with negative side effects. Smartphones promote the ‘remote working’ problem in terms of which employees may continue to be preoccupied with work-related issues even at times when they ought to relax. In that sense, while these devices are good for employers, in that they can contact or send urgent tasks to employees at any time, they are bad from an OHS perspective to the extent that they contribute to anxiety and stress.

In addition, the finding that the prevalence of stress is higher among female workers than males implies that employers need to invest more in the development and implementation of mitigation measures that prioritise female employees. Understanding broader gender issues can lead to the adoption of more effective OHS policies. Conversely, an imperfect understanding of gender issues leads to poor and ineffective policies. This creates a further problem: in South Africa, the people operating at the policy-making and managerial level tend to be male, whose understanding of gender issues is incomplete at best and non-existent at worst. Therefore, it is possible that stress could be worsened by structural and organisational factors within firms.

What, then, must employers do? There are no easy answers. Some remedies take longer to implement and yield results than others. Nevertheless, a crucial first step towards solving a problem of this nature is to understand the problem. Stress is a complex issue that many people simply do not comprehend. Its causes are even harder to identify. Even those who suffer from it may not even know that they are victims of stress. Therefore, a critical step in providing effective OHS interventions against stress is for employers to do more to facilitate an understanding of the phenomenon before anything else.

According to the global survey referred to earlier, the total number of working days lost due to ill health stood at 26,8-million in 2017/2018, of which 15,4-million days were lost as a result of mental ill health, anxiety and stress. Consequently, not only does it make sense for employers to invest in increasing the understanding of stress; it will reduce their production costs too. Days lost due to stress and mental health issues represent a staggering amount in lost revenue, making it a no-brainer for employers to prioritise the issue.

Regarding injuries from falling from height, one factor stands out in the cases highlighted in the CMS newsletter. The view of the courts in almost all these cases was that the injuries were avoidable. As pointed out by the judge in the case involving the roofing-company worker who fell and broke a pelvis: “This incident could so easily have been avoided by adopting reasonably practicable safe working practices.”

When courts use such language, it usually spells bad news for employers, more so in those trials where juries are involved. Juries tend to be unsympathetic to employers in OHS claims. In short, the judge clearly thought that the employer was negligent. It follows that the degree of culpability becomes greater if the perception exists that the adoption of simple measures would have sufficed to avert the injury. Employers ought to realise that working at height remains one of the most hazardous occupational activities anywhere in the world. Because of this, it is one area where employers will find it increasingly difficult to avoid penalties following an injury or fatality.

Published by

Albert Mushai

Legally Speaking is a regular column by Albert Mushai from the school of Economics and Business Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand. Mushai holds a master’s degree from the City University, London, and was the head of the insurance department at the National University of Science and Technology in Zimbabwe before joining the University of the Witwatersrand as a lecturer in insurance. 
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